By Serena Brown
What better place to spend our October Third Thursday than San Francisco’s own ‘House of Legends’? The iconic Westerfeld House in Alamo Square is shrouded in lore and legends. Once home to Russian diplomats, various communes, and the founder of the Satanic Church himself, the home has seen its fair share of uncommon dealings. We were lucky enough to score a private tour with the home’s current owner, Jim Siegel, who purchased the house back in 1986. We arrived on a windy Thursday evening, wine and cheese in hand, with varying expectations as to what was in store. Upon entering the home we were all blown away by the gorgeous work Mr. Siegel has done to restore the house to its original beauty, classic Victorian wallpaper and all.
After depositing our offerings in the dining room, Jim began our tour with an informed recap of the unique history of his home. Commissioned back in 1889 by a German confectioner by the name of William Westerfeld, the house has changed hands numerous times throughout its history. Jon Mahoney, a famous San Francisco contractor, bought the house after Westerfeld’s death in 1895. He and his brother Jeremiah are most well-known for their restoration efforts after the great fire, as well as for building the Palace Hotel, St. Francis Hotel, and Berkeley’s Greek Theater. The Mahoney Brother were also large fans of entertaining, inviting honored guests such as Guglielmo Marconi and Harry Houdini to attend and perform at their dinner parties.
In the 1930’s, the house ended up in the possession of a group of Czarist Russian immigrants, who opened a night club in the ballroom called “Dark Eyes.” It was during this time that the house earned the nickname ‘The Russian Embassy’, which is still prevalent today. Jim told us that a Russian colonel was allegedly murdered in one of the house’s many rooms, supposedly during a fight over a woman. In the 1940’s and 50’s, the space was converted into a boardinghouse that attracted many jazz musicians from around the city. John Handy, Art Lewis and Jimmy Lovelace were all said to have been boarders at the house during this time, though John Handy later claimed this was false.
Leading up to the 1960’s and 70’s, a series of communes came to call the house home. Jim mentioned that in his younger years he had a large fascination with the Woodstock era and has since dedicated one room in the house to the communes that once lived and played between its walls. During the commune years, underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger came to live at the house and filmed a number of his cult classics. Featured in the films was Bobby Beausoleil, a Manson family sympathizer who is currently serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, as well as Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. During our walkthrough, Jim eagerly pointed out a photo he had of LaVey and his pet lion sitting calmly in the upstairs library. The final commune to occupy the house was a 50 member collective called Family Dog, who held concerts and shows at the Avalon Ballroom and invited musicians such as the Grateful Dead to hang out with their members.
Jim recounted during his explanation that he always knew he would one day purchase the house. When he was boy he likened the exterior to that of the Adam’s Family House and since then has harbored a dream to own it. When he was only 19 he began buying and restoring old Victorian homes throughout the city. His first house he bought for $10,000 in Dogpatch and has since then purchased, restored, and scavenged tons of homes throughout San Francisco and beyond. He told us about a barn he has up north full of Victorian molding, doorframes, doorknobs, furniture, and more. He bought the Westerfeld house for $750,000, an enormous sum of money back in the 1980s, much to the chagrin of his father. Since then he’s spent thousands of hours fixing up the 25 rooms.
As we wandered the house all of us were in awe of the care put into each and every room, as each had its own character. Personally I was struck with the thought of the potential for hauntings, but Jim informed us that one of the first things he did upon purchasing the property was have it blessed by Buddhist monks, putting that thought to rest. One of the most impressive rooms by far was the upper tower, where one can experience views of the San Francisco skyline. Jim mentioned that he’s watched the skyline change over the years, and misses the days when he could see clear across the bay.
The house is full of stories, even in places we can’t see. Evidently there’s a satanic pentagram carved into the floor of the tower, and you can find teeth marks from LaVey’s pet lion on the occasional doorframe. In the kitchen there are paintings by Janet Joplin’s lead guitarist, and quirky furniture, such as a coffin coffee table, in every room. The last few hours of our visit were spent talking over wine and charcuterie about Jim’s outstanding work, and our similarities and differences as “modern architects.” Despite our firm having more modernist sensibilities, all of us can appreciate and love the traditional beauty of San Francisco Victorian mansions like Jim’s.
Although not open to public tours, there are various ways in which one might be able to take a peek inside the Westerfeld House. Jim occasionally opens his home up to various events, such as the Gallery Girls Haunted Mansion on October 27th. A few of us took advantage of the opportunity to see it once again and attended this past weekend. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the Westerfeld House, I encourage you to visit The House of Legends, a website dedicated to a documentary coming out in November about the house’s eclectic history.
We’d like to extend an enormous thank you to Jim for taking off from work early to show us his masterpiece. Hopefully we can all visit again soon!